Dawes Commission

by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG 

“Convincing the federal government to adopt a policy of allotment of land became an ‘obsession of the later 19th-century Christian reformers’ because they were convinced that it would force the Indians to become just like the industrious white farmers who were rolling over them like a tidal wave,” writes Kent Carter in his new book, THE DAWES COMMISSION AND THE ALLOTMENT OF THE FIVE CIVILIZED TRIBES, 1893-1914.” . . . The reformers were joined in their efforts to promote allotment by groups that wanted each Indian to have title to a piece of land so that the Indians could be persuaded or swindled into renting or selling it . . . Congress eventually was persuaded by the combined forces of good intentions and basic greed to pass the General Allotment Act, which was signed into law on February 8, 1887.”The Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles were exempt from this original legislation primarily because Congress did not want to address the tangle of legal questions regarding any change in title to their land. These tribes were collectively known as the Five Civilized Tribes because many of them had adopted so many elements of white culture that reformers pointed to them as models for what assimilation could accomplish. However, the reprieve from allotment was brief for the Five Civilized Tribes because they occupied more than 20 million acres of valuable land in what was then Indian Territory (most of what is now eastern Oklahoma).

Both Congress and then President Benjamin Harrison believed that the task of negotiating an allotment agreement with these tribes was too important to entrust to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Union Agency, which managed the day-to-day relations between the federal government and the Five Civilized Tribes. As a result, Section 16 of the 1893 Indian Office appropriation bill authorized the president to appoint three commissioners to negotiate the “extinguishment of the national or tribal title” to land either by “cession” or “allotment in severalty.” Thus was born the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes. It became known as the Dawes Commission, so named for its chairman, Henry L.Dawes, former senator of Massachusetts.

In May 1896 the Dawes Commission returned to Indian Territory for its third visit. It now had to attempt two tasks concurrently — process applications for citizenship and negotiate allotment agreements. The commissioners resumed making speeches to tribal officials and at public gatherings to promote negotiations (which had been rebuffed previously), but now they inevitably had to respond to questions about how the application process for citizenship would work. They also began receiving letters from people all over the United States asking how they could “get on the rolls” so they could “get Indian land.”

The Dawes Commission, regarded by some as a human tragedy, is one of the most highly controversial  subjects involving U.S. government treatment of Native Americans. During its existence Native Americans were subjected to enrollment in order to determine who was qualified for individual land allotments in Indian Territory. The methods employed by the government were overwhelming for the understaffed organization, and while the
commission ultimately broke down tribal governments and took control of preexisting Native American land, the Five Civilized Tribes did not benefit from its work.

Kent Carter, regional administrator of the National Archives — Southwest Region in Fort Worth, Texas, is author of an outstanding new book entitled THE DAWES COMMISSION AND THE ALLOTMENT OF THE FIVE CIVILIZED TRIBES, 1893-1914. Highly recommended for genealog- ists researching any of the Five Civilized Tribes and for libraries, this 284-page 8 1/2″x11″ book is available from Ancestry, Inc. (801-426-3650) or on the Web for about $29.95.



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